The long-serving U.S. politico Tip O’Neill is credited with the observation that “all politics is local.” If a politician hopes to stay in power, he or she must connect with people at a local level and respond to the concerns of constituents. Trips to far-off places might be glamorous, but you win votes by fixing potholes.
Petr Bratsky is a firm believer in the importance of the local. He is currently in the Czech Senate, affiliated with the Civic Democratic Party founded by Vaclav Klaus in 1991 on the center right of the political spectrum. Before joining the Senate, he served as the mayor of one of Prague’s municipalities. He is also a very active booster of the cultural life of the city. After I met with him in his office, he gave me a copy of a CD featuring old Prague songs. Bratsky plays guitar and sings on the recording.
I asked him why politicians have a poor reputation these days in the Czech Republic, even if everyone continues to sing the praises of democracy in general.
“It is because people see politicians as too high up,” he told me. “They have barely any chance to talk to them in person. They like democracy, freedom, and free market; they do not like politicians, taxes, or the ever-present economic crisis (or maybe it is not ever-present, but only that we talk about it too much). I would also compare it to the situation within political parties. For instance, in the Civic Democratic Party the mayors scream that they do not see the prime minister and that neither ministers nor politicians ask them for their opinions in general.”
He continued: “But quite often people like local leaders. The sentence ‘We don´t like politicians’ applies to members of Parliament and ministers only. Mayors and city councilmen are the most popular. And if people do not like someone, it is because they were involved in corruption, which is very visible even on a small scale. So, I would not say that people do not like politicians. They do not like politicians who are too distant and who can be easily blamed for someone’s child who doesn’t have a good job or a place to live.”
Petr Bratsky started out in politics not thinking that it would become a career. Now he stays in because of the results that he occasionally sees. “I also try to come up with compromises between opposite parties,” he explained. “While working in committees we can get along very well. Or sometimes we are able to help processes in civil society. So all of these things make me want to stay in politics. Otherwise, relations within politics in the Czech Republic are not nice. That applies to interparty matters, along with the recruitment we call ‘whaling’ – bringing in new members in order to have more votes over the competition. This all leads to bad relations between the parties. Only the fact that I can help out on some good things makes me want to stay in politics.”
We talked about Vaclav Klaus, the final amnesty that Klaus announced before stepping down as president, corruption, energy politics, and many other issues.
Where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I remember that quite precisely. At the time when the Berlin Wall fell I was working here in Mala Strana in a small organization. Back then a lot of East Germans had been escaping in this way: they would come to Prague to the West German embassy, where they were locked in. Later when everything was set for them to leave for West Germany, they got on prepared trains. I was working at the center for transportation development. We would go over to the embassy and throw over the wall to them toiletries and other necessary supplies, which was above and beyond the embassy´s ability to supply. We were their big fans. We loved to see all the Trabants and Warburgs parked along the streets. We also watched the police loot these cars. And then the trains left for West Germany. Not long after that came the fall of the Berlin Wall.
At that time I also took part in many illegal groups, which were copying forbidden books and so on. The real Prague Autumn was just culminating, and we all were very happy.
Was becoming a part of the opposition before 1989 a specific decision at a specific time, was it a gradual process, or was it inevitable given your background?
Though it was a gradual process, we have always been a family that disliked Communists, which made our overall attitude clear. Ever since I was a student, first at high school and then also at university, I was actively involved in various cultural activities. I played American music. I also kept in touch with people who were much deeper in the opposition process. My only disadvantage was that my university was in Žilina in Slovakia, not in Prague. But for example, I was able to bring the Charter 77 to my university a week after it was published.
We were also maintaining our Boys Scouts team, which was illegal at that time. It was forbidden in 1970 when I was 15. For the next 20 years, my friends and I were taking care of our base camp. We had been interrogated about it several times by the State Security. So they made enemies out of us. Later we started the Civic Forum.
After the Velvet Revolution my wife and I decided — with the help of some flyers that read “Who if not us!” and “When if not now!” — to try our chance in the first democratic elections to become the mayor. We always wanted to do something like this, so why not to help the country at its beginning. In my case it kept going for more than one election period, which we had not planned at all. Another motive was our faith. My wife and I were Christians and got married in a church, which also was part of it.
Do you enjoy politics?
I do. I like communal politics the most, because it’s really about the people. And when you fight for something, you can soon see the results. But also in higher politics there are many good things that can be done, even though it often looks more like we are a big bunch of politicians from different parties that are always arguing. But actually a lot of things are moving forward.
I also try to come up with compromises between opposite parties. While working in committees we can get along very well. Or sometimes we are able to help processes in civil society. So all of these things make me want to stay in politics. Otherwise, relations within politics in the Czech Republic are not nice. That applies to interparty matters, along with the recruitment we call “whaling” – bringing in new members in order to have more votes over the competition. This all leads to bad relations between the parties. Only the fact that I can help out on some good things makes me want to stay in politics.
I really like to work with young people. Up until now, I have my own scout team. I have a lot of students of political science and other fields who come for their internships here. I let them use the parliamentary library and other resources (such as the Parliamentary Institute) so that they can do a good job on their dissertation. Plus I maintain contact with several NGOs, such as People in Need, because I am a big fan of helping to introduce democracy to societies where it´s still in its beginnings, for example Belarus, Ukraine, Cuba, Tibet, and Burma. Those are the countries where I am the most engaged. We either go there, or they come here, and we organize some workshops for them, or we just simply talk about their situation. International politics, and more specifically the area of human rights, is something else that keeps me here.
There is a very high estimation for democratic process in this region. But the reputation of the actual people involved in the democratic process is falling in all of the countries in this region. Why do you think this has happened?
It is because people see politicians as too high up. They have barely any chance to talk to them in person. They like democracy, freedom, and free market; they do not like politicians, taxes, or the ever-present economic crisis (or maybe it is not ever-present, but only that we talk about it too much). I would also compare it to the situation within political parties. For instance, in the Civic Democratic Party the mayors scream that they do not see the prime minister and that neither ministers nor politicians ask them for their opinions in general.
But quite often people like local leaders. The sentence “We don´t like politicians” applies to members of Parliament and ministers only. Mayors and city councilmen are the most popular. And if people do not like someone, it is because they were involved in corruption, which is very visible even on a small scale. So, I would not say that people do not like politicians. They do not like politicians who are too distant and who can be easily blamed for someone’s child who doesn’t have a good job or a place to live.
Also, the hopes and expectations since 1990 have been higher than what politicians and institutions can realistically deliver. In all the countries where some sort of revolution took place, the expectations were huge, but the reality was very much behind.
People judge the quality of their lives according to the environment they live in. During the socialist regime, they saw an abundance in the West of medical supplies or household goods like toiletries. Today we live in society where all of this is normal. It’s now the standard. So, we are looking somewhere even higher and further. Those expectations are unrealistic. We do not accurately assess the situation in this country, and journalists often skip these topics. That is maybe why the overall mood is bad.
As an example I can mention the medical standards, which are objectively very high, so high that a few years back we could not even dream about that. But now people see it as normal. We do not know what poverty is. There are very few individuals who fall below the poverty line. I just got back from Peru, where I could witness poverty. Even the Roma families here who complain all the time live in first category apartments with hot running water and TVs, refrigerators, heaters, dishwashers: they have nearly everything. I do not mean that those technical items are the only things to be calculated to measure the quality of life. People can also easily afford to go to cultural events. They can get education for almost free. It seems to me that people here derive their feelings that life sucks from the media and not from the real facts.
One more thing to add is that the social system is on such a high level here. For example, the benefits for the unemployed are so high that my wife´s hairdresser as a self-employed person, when she pays all the taxes, rent, and other monthly expenses, ends up with 8,500 Czech crowns. But if she were unemployed she would get 8,300 Czech crowns. So the financial motivation to work is disappearing due to the high level of social support. To find a motivation to work is now easy only for the people who enjoy their jobs, or who would feel bad not working. The rest simply does not feel the need to work. This is a big sociological problem in this country.
How do you think it’s possible to get out of the downward economic spiral in the Czech Republic if it doesn’t do some stimulus spending?
We are quite a small country. We have not accepted the Euro yet. The national bank has only very limited flexibility. In general we as an industrial country are dependent on exports. Also, our agriculture is not very strong, and we made it even weaker by entering the European Union, because we gave up several commodities during the initial discussions, for example sugar beets. Regarding other European countries and our commercial partners, we have to try to enter new markets, which is nowadays becoming more and more difficult due to various artificial barriers that the EU imposes on countries from Latin America. They are doing the same, which causes big problems for smaller economies such as the Czech Republic. The crucial markets we used to have in the Soviet Union are not present any more. The Russians are being very selective. Some of the Arabic markets are impossible to get back into.
The government is trying to take all sorts of steps for economic growth, which will certainly cost them their mandate. The Social Democrats, who want to win the next elections, happily watch everything from a distance. But we cannot think that everything will miraculously end up working as it does in other countries. The Czech economy relies on German and Russian partners, without whom we would not be able to do anything. Russia holds all of Europe in its hands in terms of energy. We are trying to gain at least a little bit of independence by building a nuclear power plant. So even though the European economy as a whole is on a downward spiral, the Czech Republic is ranked relatively high in all categories (rate of unemployment, level of poverty). I strongly believe that when the world economy recovers, we will not be all the way at the bottom. And in two or three years, everything will slowly start to rise back up.
One last thing to mention concerns our scientists, who have major successes in areas of, for example, pharmacology. Because of the lack of financial resources they have to be part of bigger international projects. Many of them have already been close to getting the Nobel Prize or have worked in teams that later got it (such as Professor Holý). Czech scientists are on the way to creating medicine to treat AIDS or various vaccinations. But then American companies have the money and possibilities to do much larger research on samples of thousands of patients. They get the patent that in fact originated in Czech brains.
That is why I stay optimistic: we have the contacts with top scientists from the United States, Israel, Great Britain, and Sweden. Our universities, traditions, and smart students with their erudition will help the country in the future.
Do you think that a new government will go off in a different direction economically? Will it continue to collaborate with your party? Will it adopt the same economic policies from the last few years?
Our political scene shows continuity in several specific fields. First, energy. It does not matter whether there is a Social Democratic government or a Civic Democratic Party government. We have had treaties with Slovakia and Hungary for a long time; now we are about to sign a contract with Poland. That will theoretically restore the Visegrád Four. We are also preparing a common energy plan with Germany, at least with North Rhine-Westphalia. If that works out, this economically functioning bloc would be able to collaborate not only on energy questions but also in other areas such as greenhouse gas permits. If an important part of Europe is able to maintain this cooperation over the long term (and the Czech Republic has managed to do so), it will be proof that it can be done on other topics also. On the other hand ecology is viewed very differently by Social Democrats compared to the Civic Democratic Party, and I could keep listing other fields. But the energy area is crucial for an industrial economy such as ours, and so politicians have been aiming at the same target for a long time. Of course, during the crisis the government has to come up with restrictions, which helps the opposition win the elections. But in the end they will most likely stick to the same long-term economic program.
I can mention one interesting and stupid precedent concerning Bulgaria where the government decided to sell a part of the national concern. The Czech utility ČEZ legitimately won the tender and based its next steps on the gained shares, but the Bulgarian government took it back under state control because they think now they had made a mistake. This is not how business works. No EU country can do this to another country, especially to a country from the EU. ČEZ must win the arbitration because it is in the right, with the EU backing it up. Bulgaria made a big mistake. If they think that the European Socialist Chair, who is Bulgarian, can solve it for them, they are wrong. All other countries will remember that about them.
We are seeing a pushback against two things across the region: austerity imposed by the European Union but also austerity imposed by national governments. Do you think that austerity might have been a mistake from that point of view?
A long time ago, a Bulgarian politician said that electrical energy is nearly free, like the sun or the wind. For a long time in the Czech Republic, we also kept the price of energy lower than the price of its production because the state subsidized it. Nowadays even though ČEZ is still a national organization (about 65% belongs to the state) and a small portion of the price is still subsidized by the state, it will soon reach the point where the unit price of energy is same for both individuals and producers. The role of the state in this is to ensure that the price of production will be as low as possible. It can choose from among all the alternative sources of energy (sun, wind), thermal energy from coal, and atomic energy. We have one of the best distribution networks. People simply have to get used to the fact that they will pay at least the price of production.
It is equally important for households and companies to learn how to save energy. Transferring some of the energy to the nighttime would also make lighting cities easier. Families should think more about when they do their laundry, when to use the electrical stove (to cook exactly at 12 or postpone until later). These are just a few thoughts that the society and media should discuss more. And if the consumption of energy does not stop increasing, that will also be a problem. We, as the European Union, are making it even harder for ourselves. The greenhouse gas permits make competition more difficult for us because China and the United States do not have those limits.
Here is something that the governments could do. Nowadays when people are buying new household appliances, they pay attention to the energy usage. The government should subsidize this sort of merchandise. In reality appliances with low energy usage cost more.
What is your opinion about the amnesty program specifically about the provision connected to cases involving possibly large economic issues? What do you think about Václav Klaus´s statement: “There is no such thing as dirty money”?
Václav Klaus always makes big overstatements and wants to provoke, so he did not mean that there is no such thing as grey zone and black market. He simply wanted to say that money exists, and it is a question of how people want to use it. To him as an economist, there are products or services that produce money and then there is someone who uses that money. Back then it was a big provocation, which was meant to start discussion. I know him only a little bit, but I can say that he certainly did not want to say he was on the side of dirty money.
Personally I was shocked by the amnesty. I thought that the president would not take any more major steps. I understand that he maybe wanted to target courts and judges, against whom he was fighting for a long time because some cases have been held for more than 10 years, which is scandalous. It is almost better for the people to be sentenced or fined just so they don’t have to wait for years for the verdict. The expenses are also increasing, and the only side that has benefitted is the institution that forwards cases to specific courts.
On the other hand the extent of the amnesty was immense. I do not see it as a threat to the country. There is a possibility to appeal to a higher court with specific cases, which is now happening. In order for me to talk about the economic influences I would need to know all the specific cases and who was involved in them. Generally speaking the worst case is the group of people that was affected by a particular criminal group. Now it looks like they will not get any reimbursement, not even 1/10 or 1/20, and they will lose everything.
There are also certain types of crimes that should not even be considered for amnesty. The step Václav Klaus took showed that amnesty as an institution (for whatever reasons) does not have a place in modern society and should be erased from the constitution. It reminds me of a king´s privilege more than a president´s power. So if the senators would have to vote on whether to cancel amnesty or to keep it, I would vote for its abolition. At this point, the mercy of genius cannot win over law and justice.
When you think back 22 years ago, is there anything that should have been done differently in your mind?
For the first 12 years I was working so hard that I don’t think I could have been able to do more. It cost me a lot of my private time. At the beginning we would stay up till 3 a.m. at the town hall. I cannot think of anything that should have been done differently. I was in a close collaboration with all different experts. I, as a mayor, was not able to do more.
But for the 10 following years, 8 years in the House of Representatives and 2 years in the Senate, I would stick more to principles within my political club, within our party. For example those 10 years led the Civic Democratic party to the troubles they are in now, and I would not have made the compromises again and would have not let anyone to convince me, not even at those times when the coalition needed every single vote. I would not have succumbed to the common opinion.
I have a lot of colleagues and personalities, especially in the United States among Republicans, to look up to. I am following the political situation there. We could see many examples of the president being opposed to the party he was coming from (and vice versa) if he felt it was good for the country (for example: Obama, Reagan). Here it is very much expected to vote according to the general opinion of the party.
Prague, February 20, 2013
Interpreter: Kristyna Cermakova